Columbia Aluminum Corp.

Built in 1970 by Harvey Aluminum, the Columbia Gorge Aluminum Plant is located in Washington near the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. The facility’s production focuses on three lines: a carbon plant, reduction lines, and a cast house. Like many aluminum manufacturing plants in operation before 1980, the Columbia Aluminum Plant used asbestos in its factories, and its employees may have risked exposure to the harmful mineral.

Ownership of the Columbia Gorge Aluminum Plant has changed hands many times throughout its history. The plant, which cost close to a $100 million to build, was originally constructed by Harvey Aluminum to turn bauxite to alumina. Raw materials for the facility were obtained from a bauxite facility in St. Croix, and the Columbia plant was powered by the electricity produced by the neighboring John Day Dam. In its first year of operation in 1971, it could provide 100,000 tons of aluminum ingots annually.

The facility was purchased by Martin Marietta, who operated the plant from 1971 to 1985. Since that time, the plant has ceased production twice, each for about two years, as the facility changed hands. Commonwealth Aluminum operated the plant for two years, after which Columbia Gorge Aluminum acquired the plant and remains its owner today.

Columbia Aluminum uses a traditional process of employing electricity to reduce aluminum oxide to liquid aluminum metal, which is then cast into ingots, which are shipped elsewhere for further processing. At its highest capacity, the plant could produce 160,000 metric tons of aluminum ingots a year. While highly effective for production, the process used by Columbia Aluminum produces highly toxic waste. The toxic fumes produced by the smelting process have been reported to be hazardous for employees of plants using this process.

Workers at the Columbia Aluminum Plant may have risked exposure to asbestos, a mineral used in industrial and manufacturing facilities. Known for its high tolerance to heat and fire, asbestos was used in protective clothing for plant employees who worked around the extremely high heat needed to reduce aluminum to a liquid. Asbestos exposure has been linked to different types of cancers, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.